As the coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes, continue to spread, I’m not shocked that the Department of Justice has already identified and is taking action against a company accused of working a scheme to capitalize on the fear and uncertainty of others.
Shocked, no. Angered, yes, that even the con artists won’t take a break while thousands of honest people watch their jobs and their bank accounts disappear through no fault of their own.
With so much information out there about what is now a pandemic, it seems scammers would be unable to trick anyone into giving them money for a non-existent cure for the illness.
Perhaps it is because of information overload some people might have given up on finding reliable information so decided instead to risk some money just in case.
The Washington Post reports DOJ last week convinced a federal judge to issue a restraining order to block a website that claimed to be distributing vaccines. In court documents, the department alleged the operator of the coronavirusmedicalkit.com website was facilitating a wire-fraud scheme, “intentionally making false statements” about the vaccines, which do not exist.
“The website falsely claims that the World Health Organization is giving away free vaccine kits and that individuals who visit the website can order such a kit by paying $4.95 for shipping,” DOJ said.
Information on the website claims “You just need to add water, and the drugs and vaccines are ready to be administered. There are two parts to the kit: one holds pellets containing the chemical machinery that synthesises the end product, and the other holds pellets containing instructions that tell the drug which compound to create. Mix two parts together in a chosen combination, add water, and the treatment is ready.”
I didn’t have the nerve to click on the “order now” button on the site, but I have a pretty good idea what would happen if I gave these guys a credit card number to buy this nonexistent “treatment.” They’d give my card a treatment all right, one from which my account could likely never recover. The misspelling of “synthesizes” on the unsecure website should tell the savvy buyer something, but we haven’t all been savvy buyers in the last few weeks.
In fact, we’ve been panic buyers, snatching up everything from dried beans (who even bothers to cook dried beans) to toilet paper. I get it if you think you’re going to be housebound for a few weeks with nothing else to do but soak a pan of dried beans overnight before cooking them all day. But toilet paper? The best I can tell, the COVID-19 illness attacks the upper respiratory system, not the gastrointestinal system.
I do believe that the panic buying was likely spurred by the information overload — rumors and downright falsehoods seem to spread more quickly than a virus — hence the term for a particular item “going viral.”
What we do know is that the virus appears to spread easily and a number of measures have been taken across the county and in Arkansas to try to slow the spread. Those include as we know, closing bars and restaurants except for drive-thru service, limiting crowds, calling off on-campus classes at colleges and universities, closing public schools and other measures.
Reliable information about the situation nationally is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website cdc.gov, and the state situation on the Arkansas Department of Health’s site, healthy.arkansas.gov. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been giving regular briefings as well and those are streamed on a number of sites and carried live on broadcast stations.
Hutchinson has taken action to expedite unemployment payments, assist small businesses and daycare providers and earmarked money for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and first responders. Hutchinson’s calm, factual presentations are a stark contrast to some of the hysteria one can find by channel or web surfing.
Congress passed a stimulus package for taxpayers and relief for businesses hit hard by economic blows even as the virus continued to disrupt global financial markets. Those who have lost their jobs and much of their savings can use the $1,200 each — like yesterday — but that won’t restore their lost jobs or lost savings when it comes. Let’s hope the bailouts being considered for big corporations come with plenty of strings attached — for instance no stock buybacks with relief money.
We are warned that we may be living under restrictions which are causing extreme hardships for business owners and workers alike for many more weeks.
Why has it has been so difficult to “flatten the curve,” i.e., make the number of cases stop rising?
Those who remember the Watergate era will recall the late Sen. Howard Baker’s repeated inquiry: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” That inquiry it seems, might best be directed to Xi Jinping, president of China.
Published reports say Chinese scientists in December isolated the virus, sequenced its genetic code and prepared reagents for testing. But officials in Wuhan ordered a lid be kept on the information internally. China notified the World Health Organization, but not its people until mid-January when Xi ordered a response to the outbreak. During that time, a delegation from China traveled to the United States to sign a trade agreement with the U.S.
Could the world have reacted more quickly had everyone understood fully what was happening in China?
Who knows? But handwashing, social distancing and business shutdowns had better work. It doesn’t look like there’s a good plan B.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.